Children are poor witnesses. Or are they?

In contrast to suggestion-induced false memories, spontaneous false memories are more likely to emerge in adults than in children (Brainerd et al., 2008). Theoretically, this developmental pattern has been predicted by an influential memory theory called the Fuzzy-trace Theory (FTT; Brainerd, Reyna, & Ceci, 2008). FTT postulates that the memory for an event is stored in two traces: (a) the verbatim trace and (b) the gist trace. The verbatim trace captures specific details of an event. When seeing a knife (see Figure 2), the verbatim information would be “silver object with a blade and black handle”. In addition to this, adults automatically extract the gist of an event which includes the underlying meaning of an experience. Consequently, the presence of a weapon is stored as the gist representation. While verbatim information can be assessed as soon as the senses function properly (e.g., seeing), the extraction of gist information relies on knowledge that an individual has accumulated over the years. During development, people augment their knowledge and therefore their performance in gist extraction increases (Reyna & Kiernan, 1994). Astonishingly, this advantage in gist extraction leads to an age increase in false memories. The older children get and the longer the delay between encoding and retrieval is, the more they rely on gist information. If specific verbatim information has to be remembered, it can happen that this information is no longer available. Thus, false memories occur when gist representation leads to erroneous inferences. For example, for the question “How did the thief threaten the victim?” reliance on the gist might lead to the erroneous answer “with a pistol”.

Figure 2. Picture of a knife to illustrate the difference between verbatim and gist information. CCO licence from

Evidence supports this view, with children being less vulnerable to the formation of false memories than adults for meaning-connected experiences (see Otgaar, Howe, Peters, Smeets, & Moritz, 2014). More specifically, studies employing the DRM paradigm have found that younger children exhibit lower recall and recognition rates of the critical, non-presented words than older children (e.g., Brainerd, Reyna, & Zember, 2011). Thus, a developmental reversal can be found in spontaneous false memories. As a consequence, it is not likely that in the case that was described in the introduction, the 6-year-old girl produced a spontaneous false memory

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